Sunday Homilies with Pastor Wanda: Fouth Sunday in Advent

My apologies, I’m running a bit behind. Better late than never, right?

It was a few days before Christmas. A woman woke up one morning and told her husband, “I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?”

“Oh,” her husband replied, “you’ll know the day after tomorrow.”

The next morning, she turned to her husband again and said the same thing, “I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?”

And her husband said, “You’ll know tomorrow.”

On the third morning, the woman woke up and smiled at her husband, “I just dreamed again that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?”

And he smiled back, “You’ll know tonight.”

That evening, the man came home with a small package and presented it to his wife. She was delighted. She opened it gently. And when she did, she found-a book! And the book’s title was “The Meaning of Dreams.”

As 21st century Christians, we don’t put the stock in dreams as the ancient world and the biblical tradition. We tend to move in the opposite direction…focusing on that which is factual and concrete, shying away from that which is elusive and out of our control.  Yet, even in the 21st century, we still sleep-we require a time of rest which leads us into the world of dreams, of vulnerability, of stirrings that come to us out of our control.

In today’s gospel from Matthew, we read that the birth of Jesus is announced to Joseph in a dream, in which he is instructed to name the child Jesus. You know, the ancients dared to believe that the unbidden communication of dreams is a venue in which the holy purposes of God, come to us. They knew too that this communication is not obvious. It requires interpretation, but the dream world of sleep, of stirrings of the heart, of imagination…these were honored and respected. (Brueggeman)

So in today’s reading from Matthew we hear Joseph’s story and we catch a glimpse of his faith…of a quiet and unyielding faith that we don’t often hear about.  His story begins at the start of the gospel with a long genealogy of Jesus. The genealogy shows that Jesus is a descendant of David through Joseph. But it’s an unusual geneaology.

First of all it includes five women:  Tamar, Rahab, ruth, “the wife of Uriah” whom we know is Bathsheba, and Mary.  Since ancestry and inheritance were traced through the father’s line, reference to women in a geneaology was uncommon.  Secondly, each of the women mentioned are involved in some sort of questionable sexual behavior.                                       

We don’t know the full reasoning behind Jesus’ family tree according to Matthew, but we do see a recurring theme in that the plan of God has often been fulfilled in history in unanticipated and irregular ways, as in the birth of Jesus from Mary.  

Joseph’s story shows that God’s plan often occurs in surprising, unpredictable, even scandalous ways. Yet most of us like our life with some kind of order. We like to know where we are going.  Even those of us who are wired to fly by the seat of our pants, still like to have some sense that we know what our life is about. We have dreams and hopes, sometimes big and sometimes small, some specific, some vague…but most of us like to know at least the general direction in which we are heading.

I suspect that Joseph was no different. He probably had a sense of where his life was headed, what his hopes and dreams were for Mary, his intended wife. And then Mary shows up pregnant with a child that is not his. Then he has this dream, where an angel comes and tells him
to take Mary as his wife into his home because the child is God’s.
This probably wasn’t his original plan!

Before I met David, my husband, I had plans to live in New York City. 

Little did I know that my future husband couldn’t abide New York. When we met and fell in love, everything changed…and I ended up in rural PA and now rural WV. Sometimes changed plans are positive.

On the other hand, a change in plans doesn’t always feel so good. It might be through the loss of a job, sickness, financial misfortune, divorce, or an unplanned pregnancy, trouble with children, or death that turns our world upside down, and it usually doesn’t seem to have anything holy about it.
This is precisely where this story of Joseph and the life he lived from this point on can guide us. Your tenancy might be to grumble, to dig in your heels, to fight the change. Or perhaps you are one of those stoic ones, who don’t say anything but deep inside begin to feel bitter and angry.

But to take a Joseph Look would be to ask “Where is God in all of this? What might be God calling me to do with this situation so that it becomes an opportunity?  What is God up to? And how can I be a part of it?
When the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, Joseph doesn’t say a word, but he listens to this message from God. When Joseph woke up from his dream, he dropped the ordinary plans he’d made and began a whole new life not at all of his own making or choosing.  He stands as an incredible model for us of faith.

We often think of righteousness as always doing what is right. To divorce Mary quietly, as he had planned, would have demonstrated a certain kind of righteousness.   However, marrying her – based on a dream, knowing that people were talking about him, facing the disapproval of his family, facing shame and embarrassment and disapproval of the religious authorities – this was taking it to a whole other level. 

Have you been faced with a decision or decisions over which you have agonized and prayed and sought advice.  Maybe marriage, maybe divorce, choosing a career or taking retirement.  Maybe having surgery. For Joseph, it was marriage or divorce. Matthew says that Joseph decided to divorce Mary.

But then – then came the angel. The angel said, “Joseph, don’t be afraid to do what you really want to do. Don’t be afraid to risk your reputation.

Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife because God has a part in what is going on here.” The angel was saying, “Joseph, I know about the decision you have made to divorce Mary. I know it must have felt like the right decision at the time, but give it some more thought. Find the courage to change your mind and do that which God is leading you to do.”

Joseph models for us what it is like to struggle with a difficult decision.

In Joseph, we find one who is willing to risk being unpopular, one who is willing to reject an easy way out, and one who is willing to face a most difficult circumstance. In Joseph, we find one who takes a courageous stand against the current and then does what is right.

And the angel came to Joseph in a dream.

Abraham and Sarah heard the angel, as did Moses and Daniel. An angel spoke to the women at the empty tomb, as well as to the apostles who were in prison, and to Paul in the midst of a storm at sea. But by far, our favorite angel stories are those that have to do with this season. An angel promised old Zechariah and barren Elizabeth a son. An angel promised Mary a special baby. An angel directed to marry Mary.

Most of us don’t escape difficult decisions and situations. The decisions range from family matters to financial ones; from health concerns to career choices; from deciding what is right to peer pressure. This Christmas we rejoice that we do not make any decision alone. The promise of Emmanuel is that when we are weighing the options carefully in the midst of difficult decisions, we are in the presence of the one true God who is always for us and always with us.

Do you realize in the Bible how often God’s Spirit makes things new?
Bruggemann writes:

  • It is God’s Spirit that creates a new world, a new heaven  a new earth.
  • It is God’s Spirit, that blows the waters back in Egypt and lets our ancestors depart from slavery.
  • It is God’s Spirit that calls prophets and apostles and martyrs to do dangerous acts of obedience.
  • It is God’s Spirit that came upon the disciples in the Book of Acts and created a new community, the church.

That is what Matthew is telling us, that God’s Spirit has stirred and caused something utterly new in the world. God has caused this new baby who will change everything among us.

Is the voice of God whispering to you in your heart, in your sleep, in your feelings, in your hunches? How can you sink into your dreams, trusting and following them, so that God can be born in you and through you into the world?

Perhaps we follow the ancients in at least this aspect of faith. While we don’t forgo the use of reason; we know that reason must involve the presence of the Holy. Our technological achievements require and permit us to learn again what the community of faith has known — and trusted –that there is something outside our controlled management of reality which must be heeded.

Joseph’s story tells about how to accept changes. Joseph helped these three people come together as a family. It’s not the way he would have wished it or planned it himself, but it’s the way it happened. 

It’s hard to do the right thing when you might suffer for it.  It’s hard to do the right thing when you’re not sure it’s the right thing.  And it’s very hard to do the right thing when everybody else thinks it is the wrong thing.

Joseph shows us what faith involves. It isn’t simply following the right rules and procedures; it’s following God’s way even when it is costly and even when we are not 100% certain. It is being willing to suffer with others. It is demonstrated not in our words so much as in our actions.

St. Francis once said, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”  For Joseph, words did not seem to be necessary. 

Amen.

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